It’s hard to believe an entire half of 2008 is behind us, and what a half it’s been. Seems like only yesterday it was January, when a gallon of gas was $3.11, some folks still had jobs and a whole 32 percent of America still liked George Bush. OK, so it’s been a horrific year, but at least in terms of good music, things are rolling right along.

The following are the records released this year that must not be overlooked. If you’re one of the lucky few who can drop a Hamilton on a whole album, this is your call to action.

A disclaimer regarding exclusions: Local acts like Mumpsy and Crutch and the Giant Junshi met the criteria with flying colors, but we’ve already told you about them. Some brand-new releases, like the ones from Lil Wayne and N.E.R.D., are fantastic, but haven’t set in enough to be given a pair of listicles just yet. Others, like those from Portishead and James McMurtry, were painfully cut due to space limitations. Also, the fact that R.E.M.’s Accelerate is better than the garbage Around the Sun doesn’t mean it’s great.

Autopilot Is for Lovers Sore Eyes (Stereotype)

Although technically an EP, this seven-song outing from a Portland, Ore., male-female duo is a haunting and full-bodied trek through the kind of Appalachian folk towns you’d never want to break down in. Alternately bluesy and Tim Burton-esque, singer Adrienne Hatkin’s tottering half-yodel is a fascinating new development from the city that gave us M. Ward.

The Black Keys Attack and Release (Nonesuch)

There’s give and take on every great album. Although Ohio Delta blues duo the Black Keys lost some of the immediacy that’s defined their career by heading into an actual recording studio for the first time with hip-hop producer Danger Mouse (the project was originally conceived for the late Ike Turner), they gained a new depth of artistry by containing their garage-bred recklessness and channeling that energy into more adventurous tunes like “I Got Mine,” which sounds like an unearthed R.L. Burnside gem.

Charles Hamilton Outside Looking mixtape (free download at www.iamnot

Quality one-liners are a prerequisite in hip-hop, and Cleveland newbie Charles Hamilton has them in spades. “I’m an uptown boy with SoHo flavor/The beat is D-minor but I’m oh so major,” he boasts on a glowing ode to New York shawties, “Brooklyn Girls.” On “Superman” he throws out references at a mile a minute: “I want Charlie to shine, you want Charlie to Sheen/I’m Martin Sheen/I fathered this shit.” But more importantly, Hamilton, like Eminem before him, takes the time to enunciate every word so that nothing is lost in his flow, and that makes this sample-happy debut not only impressive, but a total joy.

Killer Mike I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II (SMC)

Atlanta’s Killer Mike was mentored by Outkast’s Big Boi. Last year, Mike punched Big Boi in the face. He denies the violence, but admits he was disgruntled and now he’s on his own. And man, is Grind II (now pushed to a July 8 release – go figure) one massively disgruntled album. Mike raps with a sound and fury to make Faulkner hide in his closet. The Mike and the Mechanics–sampling “Can You Hear Me,” with its dark and mountain-sized chorus, is the perfect jam for that melancholy nighttime drive home from a beach weekend.

Martha Wainwright I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too (Zoe)

Between the album title and opening track “Bleeding All Over You” (a cousin to Zeppelin’s “That’s the Way” if there ever was one), if you don’t know what’s on Loudon’s daughter’s mind in the first four minutes, you’re too dense to ever understand women (or function in everyday life, for that matter). This isn’t the same Martha who matter-of-factly skulked her dumped ass through “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” years ago. Now into her 30s, Wainwright’s playfulness resembles Dolly Parton’s, but with a Germaine Greer mind-set. She’s a woman completely in charge of her own confusion and misguided lovesickness, and the results are some of the best chick-folk in years.

Pink Reason Cleaning the Mirror (Siltbreeze)

There’s rock bottom and then there’s Kevin DeBroux’s world of internal hurt. Mirror is another EP that works as an all-encompassing journey into the heart of a very disturbed individual. The feedback mumble of songs like “Motherfucker” is hypnotizing, and while nobody in their right mind would want to live in the Pink Reason shack, a quick visit is always good for some conversational fodder.

Try Me Bicycle Voicings (self-released)

A confession: This debut from the Phoenix, Ariz., trio was actually released more than a year ago. But it wasn’t until their selection as NPR’s Second Stage artist of the day in May that anyone outside of Phoenix had ever set ears on them. It was a deft discovery. Voicings is a heart-crushing collection of three-part-harmony acoustic ballads that never compromise organic emotion for bombast. “Big Small” is a quiet masterwork of piano-and-violin meditation, and “April Sky” is a Gershwin-like composition anticipating the inevitable harsh Arizona summer, when spring was just getting good.



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